ARLINGTON, Va. -- Northern Virginia faces a dwindling supply of telephone numbers which will prompt the introduction of a fifth area code in the state in 1999. The announcement came today following a day-long meeting in Arlington of officials from various segments of the telecommunications industry.
"Our reserve of telephone numbers in the 703 area code is diminishing at an astonishing rate," said Hugh Stallard, president and CEO of Bell Atlantic-Virginia. The 703 code, which at one time served the entire state, is now assigned only to telephone customers in Northern Virginia.
The shortage is triggered by the explosive popularity of cellular telephones, multiple residential telephone lines, pagers, fax machines and modems. Further demand for numbers is coming from new companies seeking to provide local phone service in Northern Virginia.
"At the current pace of growth, we will run out of numbers late in 1999," Stallard said.
The '703' area includes the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax and Falls Church, and the counties Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William and eastern Loudoun County (including Leesburg).
Of the 761 exchange codes (first three digits of a phone number) available for assignment in the 703 area, only 313 remain. An exchange code can contain as many as 10,000 telephone numbers.
Creation of a new area code would, in effect, free up over seven million new telephone numbers. Stallard said he will ask the Virginia State Corporation Commission to consider a new type of "overlay" area code for Northern Virginia, one that would not divide the community geographically. Maryland introduced two new overlay area codes earlier this year.
The new overlay area code would follow the same existing boundaries of the 703 code. When all phone numbers in the 703 area are used up, additional phone numbers in the same area would be given the new area code.
"We won't have to chop up Fairfax County. Arlington and Alexandria won't be split from Fairfax," Stallard said. He added that the overlay area code would allow all current customers to keep their phone numbers. However, the overlay approach would require a change in the way local calls are dialed. Once it's introduced, all callers would need to dial the full 10-digit telephone number for a local call. Customers in Northern Virginia already dial 10 digits to call locally into the District of Columbia or suburban Maryland.
If the overlay approach is accepted, Bell Atlantic will allow 10-digit local dialing beginning next summer. Customers would still be able to make local calls with seven digits during a one-year grace period. The new area code would not be assigned until all exchange codes are used in the '703' area.
The overlay will have no effect on customer rates. "What is a local call today will be a local tomorrow," Stallard said.
The alternative to the overlay approach is called a "geographic split." Stallard said a split would make no sense in a densely populated area like Northern Virginia. "Communities would be divided and hundreds of thousands of people would be forced to change their phone numbers," he said.
Businesses in a new area code created by a split would have to change their stationery and business cards, promotional material and signs on company vehicles. Businesses and other customers throughout the old and new area codes would incur expenses to reprogram equipment, such as cellular phones and burglar alarms.
Further, while businesses assigned to the new area code would bear the hardship of changing their telephone numbers, their competitors remaining in the current area code would not.
"After studying all the issues, we believe the overlay is the most practical and the least disruptive approach to meeting the growing need for phone numbers. Clearly, it's in the best interests of all of our customers," Stallard said.
The number of the new area code for Northern Virginia has not yet been selected. It will become the fifth area code in the Old Dominion, and the third new code for the state in the last two years.
The '540' area code, which serves primarily the western part of the state, was spun off from '703' a year ago. Last July the '757' area code was introduced in the '804' area to serve Hampton Roads. Both times, the new area codes were created with geographic splits, forcing many customers to change their phone numbers.
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